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Review: Challenging Histories, International Slavery Museum

International Slavery Museum’s new collection display shares a mass of artworks collected over the last four years.

Collections displays can be stale, and feel like dusted off pieces of irrelevant past, but the pace of this show is reflective of the pace of changing cultures.

The best illustration of this is the exhibition is Alice Kettle’s Cotton Slave Adam; Cotton Slave Eve. The work combines textiles, text, stitch and drawing to highlight similarities between 18th Century cotton trades, and those of today. Adam, made from an old cotton table cloth, coated in cloth related to the products he would have farmed. Eve, made from modern cloth shares the story of a modern mother, supporting her child through factory labour.

The purpose of collections is often to ensure we don’t forget our past, for better or worse. This connects traditional collections to modern perception. With work made by artists still working today, still responding to these subjects, they are references for ongoing archives.

The power of the show though isn’t in its presentation of these moments in time, its in the questions it asks of our understandings of them. Kimathi Donkor’s UK Diaspora shares portraits of the most prominent figures in western history, and reminds us how little we are taught, or how white washed our curriculums are, or how we are subliminally led to see these people as founders of modern life and celebrate them in our day to day, whether they are monarchs or presidents. Artists like Donkor challenge our relationship with these figures.

This archive being in view, in a space designed to teach, gives us that chance to view our own history in a new light.

More importantly, it does that through art.

Francois Piquet’s Timalle, in all its visceral stature, is probably the most recognisable work in this collection. It’s a combination of performance and sculpture, who’s taped up expression shares desperation. The performance shows Piquet, a white French man, living in the Caribbean, transform Timal (small male) into Timalle (suitcase) over 6 minutes. The purpose of the work as I gathered was similar to Alice Kettle’s, in that it came about through a frustration over the skewed teaching that the abolition of slavery created a world without slavery. Forced labour, or labour which dominates its workers exists all over the world, but in a mixed society, particularly in what Piquet references as a the ‘multi-polar’ society he inhabits, it’s difficult to truly repair and repent for something if we believe it to be over, when it is not.

It’s through the impact of these works, and the voices of the artists themselves, that this exhibition evidences its importance. Without it, we would be looking at more artefact, more objects branded as archives. This show transforms the dialogue of the International Slavery Museum into an space to reframe today.

Words, Kathryn Wainwright
This is a permenant display, opened in July 2021, find it at the International Slavery Museum